The Psychology of Fear: Definition, Symptoms, Traits, Causes, Treatment

What Is Fear?

Fear is a natural and primitive emotion that can be experienced by everyone to some degree.

Fear is a basic, emotional response to a perceived threat or danger. It triggers the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response, leading to physiological changes like increased heart rate and adrenaline levels.

Fear is an essential survival mechanism, helping individuals react to potentially life-threatening situations. It can respond to immediate, tangible threats and more abstract or future concerns. Fear can also be learned through past experiences or observations.

People may experience fear when in situations such as walking home alone at night, facing animals they perceive as dangerous, or when about to skydive out of a plane.

Fear can also be attributed to feelings of stress and anxiety. It may also contribute to some feelings of disgust, as according to a study investigating those who feared or did not fear snakes, those who experienced this fear reported high feelings of disgust and fear (Rádlová et al., 2020).

Scared teen at home embracing pillow sitting on a couch in the living room at home
Fear is a normal human experience that can be felt by anyone at certain times in their lives.

Fear is a very natural human response that arises as a defense mechanism in the face of potential danger or harm. It can manifest in a variety of situations and is a normal part of the human experience.

However, when fear becomes extreme in certain situations, such as in social situations or towards a particular object, it may indicate a more significant issue.

In such cases, seeking professional help and support can be beneficial in managing and overcoming the fear.

Biochemical Reaction

Fear is a normal response to many situations and comprises two primary reactions: biochemical and emotional.

The biochemical reaction to fear causes our bodies to respond to perceived threats in the environment.

This produces automatic physical reactions such as sweating, increased heart rate, breathlessness, and dilated pupils. These bodily reactions prepare the body to either combat the threat or run away from it – this is called the ‘ fight or flight ’ response.

In response to a threat, the sympathetic nervous system, part of the autonomic nervous system, is activated by the sudden release of hormones.

The sympathetic nervous system then stimulates the adrenal glands to trigger the release of hormones, resulting in physical reactions. These hormones are:

  • Epinephrine (adrenaline) – Provides energy to the major muscles of the body so they can respond to a perceived threat.
  • Norepinephrine (noradrenaline) – increases alertness, arousal, and attention. Connstricts blood vessels that help maintain blood pressure during times of stress.

Emotional Response

The emotional response to fear, however, is personalized to the individual. Since the biology of fear involves some of the same chemical responses to pleasant emotions, such as excitement and happiness, people can experience either pleasant or unpleasant emotions to fear.

For instance, some people may enjoy riding extreme roller coasters, while others may have a negative reaction and will avoid these at all costs.

Although the biochemical reaction for fear may be the same, some people will experience the intensity of fearful situations differently than others.

Symptoms and diagnosis

some of the signs of fear

People can experience fear differently, but some of the common physical and emotional symptoms are:

  • Sweating
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Dry mouth
  • Upset stomach
  • Chills
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling out of control
  • A sense of impending death
  • Dread

For a condition associated with fear and anxiety to be diagnosed, the symptoms must be persistent, interfere with some part of normal functioning, and cannot be better explained by another condition.

If feelings of fear become persistent and excessive, this could be diagnosed as a type of anxiety disorder, depending on the symptoms being experienced.

Common disorders which are associated with fear are: phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, healthy anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Is fear useful?

In many situations, fear is normal and healthy in that it can keep us from entering harmful situations and help us decide when to get out of these situations.

The immediate threat of danger and the physical responses that come with it can help focus our attention and mobilize us to cope with the danger, but either fighting against it (fight) or running away from it (flight).

Fear may also help us to react to danger without having to think about it consciously.

For example, if a car is coming towards us, fear can make us jump out of the way and thus save our lives. Also, if humans have the capacity to notice fear in others since we recognize it in ourselves, we can offer compassion and reassurance to others to help them cope.

In contrast, extreme levels of fear could result in the development of mental health conditions such as phobias or other anxiety conditions. A phobia is an intense, persistent, and out of proportional fear of something, an event, or a situation.

Phobias twist the normal fear response into something difficult or impossible to control and can be detrimental to people’s lives. Likewise, other anxiety conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder, involve intense worry or fear of many things and social situations respectively.

The biochemical and emotional response to fear can be so extreme that it can negatively affect people’s lives. If fear gets too extreme, such as in those experiencing anxiety disorders, it can keep us trapped, preventing us from doing things we want.

Disorders That Involve Fear


Phobias may be diagnosed when certain situations, events, or objects create a strong, irrational fear. Some symptoms of phobias include:

  • A sensation of uncontrollable anxiety when exposed to the source of the fear.

  • The feeling that the source of the fear needs to be avoided at all costs.

  • Not being able to function properly when exposed to fear.

  • They may acknowledge that the fear is irrational and exaggerated, combined with the inability to control feelings of fear.

  • Feeling incapable of coping with the fear.

Different types of phobias can be diagnosed: specific phobias, social phobias, and agoraphobia. Specific phobias are intense, irrational fears of a specific trigger.

Some common specific phobias are spiders and snakes. Social phobia is a profound fear of public humiliation or being judged negatively by others in social situations.

Agoraphobia is an intense fear of situations from which escape might be difficult (or embarrassing) or in which help may not be available in the event of having an unexpected panic episode. This could be a fear of enclosed spaces, as well as open or crowded spaces.

Specific phobias are known as simple phobias since they can usually be linked to an identifiable cause and are unlikely to affect daily living as the person can avoid the trigger.

For instance, if someone has a phobia of heights, they are not likely to experience this fear day-to-day, only in situations where they may have to face their fear.

Social phobia (also known as social anxiety disorder) and agoraphobia, however, are known as complex phobias since their triggers are less easily recognizable or avoidable, and the individual is more likely to experience the associated fear more frequently than those with a specific phobia.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a mental health disorder that can develop in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, such as a serious accident, military combat, physical or sexual assault, or natural disaster.

One of the key symptoms of PTSD is experiencing intense fear, anxiety, or distress when confronted with reminders of the traumatic event, even if the present situation is not actually dangerous or threatening (Maren et al., 2013).

This fear response is thought to be related to the way the brain processes and encodes memories of the traumatic event. When someone experiences a traumatic event, the brain’s fear response is activated, causing the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.

However, in people with PTSD, the brain’s fear response can become overactive and hyper-vigilant, causing them to perceive even minor cues in their environment as potential threats. For example, a veteran who experienced combat trauma might feel intense fear or panic when they hear a car backfire or fireworks, as these sounds could trigger memories of gunfire or explosions.

In essence, the fear response in people with PTSD is triggered by associations between present experiences and past traumatic events, rather than by a real and present danger.

These associations can be so strong that even subtle reminders of the trauma can trigger a full-blown fear response, leading to symptoms like panic attacks, hypervigilance, and avoidance behaviors.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Those who experience GAD typically have persistent and excessive worries about everyday life and worry about multiple things. They may be fearful about their health, finances, safety, and relationships, etc. to the point where it can become exhausting.

People with GAD tend to experience the physical symptoms associated with fear but more often and for more reasons.

Panic disorder

Panic disorder is characterized as fear and worries of the panic attacks experienced recurrently, which are sudden and intense feelings of terror.

These feelings could sometimes occur without warning and are associated with physical symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, fast heart rate, and trembling.

Panic attacks could become very intense that impairs the individual functioning during the episode.

What Causes fear?

Specific phobias usually develop in childhood and, in some cases, can be pinpointed to an exact moment.

In some cases, specific phobias can result from an early traumatic experience with the feared object, event, or situation, such as a phobia of bicycles caused by a traumatic incident of falling off a bike as a child.

Phobias that start in childhood could also be caused by witnessing the phobia of a family member and developing the same phobia. For instance, if a parent has a phobia of spiders, the child may also learn to have a phobia of spiders.

Evolutionary theory of fear

Seligman (1971) applied his preparedness hypothesis theory to explain why humans fear. The preparedness hypothesis is the belief that humans tend to fear things that were a source of danger to our ancestors.

Seligman proposed that the fears of individuals diagnosed with phobias reflect the evolutionary prepared learning to fear events and situations that have provided survival threats.

He argued these threats would be from an evolutionary rather than a contemporary perspective.

This can explain why phobias such as threatening animals, heights, closed spaces, and social evaluations are very common and appear to be innate fears.

Contemporary fears such as bicycles, broken electrical equipment, and guns are less common as these would not have been survival threats to our ancestors.

The preparedness hypothesis suggests that humans can have innate responses to specific stimuli without any previous environment input.

This has been tested by scientists who found it was easier to train humans to fear snakes and spiders than friendly dogs of pillows, for instance.

This was especially true for very young children who appeared to fear snakes and spiders before encountering or hearing about them.

Fear conditioning

Pavlovian fear conditioning is a state of fear or anxiety that has been demonstrated in animals after repeated pairings of a threatening stimulus with a previously neutral stimulus using classical conditioning.

In experiments, the researchers would pair a neutral stimulus with an unpleasant stimulus – such as a loud noise or shock. After repeated pairing of these two stimuli, the neutral stimulus on its own would eventually elicit a state of fear.

This is another way in which intense fear could be caused. The fear expressed by the animals would be seen as essential for their survival in this instance.

This fear conditioning could be learned in humans who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very distressing, frightening, or traumatic events, causing individuals to relive them through symptoms of intense or prolonged psychological distress when triggered.

This includes marked physiological reactions such as exaggerated and unrelenting unconditioned responses to stimuli (e.g., crowds, flashes of light, or sounds) associated with trauma (e.g., death or injury).

PTSD can bring about feelings of intense fear when something specifically triggers it. Most of the time, the trigger will not be an actual threat to survival but is a conditioned stimulus for the individual.

This means they can experience intense feelings of fear at times when it is not appropriate.

The brain’s fear response

The primary brain region that is responsible for fear is the amygdala. The amygdala is a collection of nuclei in the limbic system.

parts of the limbic system

Some main nuclei in the amygdala are the lateral, basal, central lateral, and central medical nuclei. The lateral nucleus is the primary input that receives input from the thalamus and the brain’s cortex, providing it with information about the sensory stimuli being experienced.

The primary output nucleus of the amygdala is the central medial nucleus which projects to different structures, such as the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus, which triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

It also projects to the lateral hypothalamus to stimulate the autonomic nervous system, which results in the physiological symptoms associated with the fight or flight, or fear, response.

The amygdala is also thought to be the brain area responsible for fear conditioning. In rats, it was found that an unconditioned stimulus, such as a shock, is picked up by the spinal cord, which sends this signal to the thalamus and the cortex, which then both project to the lateral nucleus of the amygdala.

The synaptic inputs from the unconditioned stimulus are strong enough to excite the lateral amygdala neurons, activating the neurons in the central medial nucleus and thus produces a fear response.

Sensory information from a neutral stimulus (e.g., music) also reaches the thalamus and cortex.

Still, the inputs from this stimulus are not strong enough on their own to excite the lateral amygdala neurons, so the central amygdala neurons remain unstimulated, and there is no fear response.

However, if the neutral stimulus (music) is paired with the unconditioned stimulus (shock), neurons can encode both simultaneously.

This can strengthen the synapse between incoming neurons carrying information about the neutral stimulus and the lateral amygdala neurons.

Eventually, this synapse is strengthened enough to allow them to stimulate the lateral amygdala neurons on their own without the unconditioned stimulus. The lateral nucleus will then excite the central medial nucleus to produce the fear response.

The hippocampus, which plays a role in storing episodic memories, can also interact with the amygdala and be involved in fear.

The neurons from the hippocampus can project to the basal nucleus of the amygdala, which can then stimulate the central medial nucleus.

Because it can do this, the hippocampus allows contextual-related memories to respond to fear. This could be why we can have fearful memories and why they are so strong.

What does the research say?

There are suggested to be sex differences in amygdala activation.

A study that used the brain imaging technique of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) found that when presented with happy facial expressions, there was greater activation in the right amygdala for males but not for females.

Both males and females showed greater left amygdala activation for fearful faces, which supports that the left may be more involved in negative affect (Killgore & Yurgelun-Todd, 2001).

Other researchers have found that the volumes of brain regions involved in fear may differ for those who have experienced more trauma.

Using MRI on children who experienced trauma, research found reduced hippocampal and increased amygdala volume with increasing levels of trauma exposure. Higher exposure to violence was also associated with increased amygdala activation.

Finally, increased functional connectivity between the amygdala and the brain stem was associated with higher levels of exposure to violence (Van Rooij, et al., 2020).

How to Overcome and Manage Fear

Treatment for disorders associated with fear varies depending on the type of disorder and the symptoms experienced.

Often, phobias treatments can be used for disorders associated with extreme fear. Some of these treatment options will be explained below:

Graded Exposure Therapy

A common therapy for people with extreme fears is graded exposure therapy. This involves gradually leading the individual through exposure situations commonly used for those with specific phobias.

The aim is to gradually expose the individual to the fear object or situation in small steps until they feel comfortable and can move on to a higher level of exposure until they eventually can face their fear.

For instance, if someone has a phobia of spiders, the steps may go as follows:

  1. Talking to the therapist about spiders

  2. See pictures of spiders – this could start off as drawings and gradually get more realistic until the patient can manage to view a photo of one.

  3. The patient may be encouraged to watch video footage of a spider

  4. The patient could handle a toy spider

  5. Eventually, the patient should get to a stage where they can face a real spider.

The steps taken to complete the therapy may take a long time, depending on how strong the fear is and the individual’s capability to cope.

Once the individual feels like they can manage their fear at each step, they can move on to the next step until they gradually become desensitized to their fear.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT can help tackle negative and unrealistic thoughts regarding intense fear.

The individual can work with the therapist to work through their fears, form more realistic thoughts, challenge their fearful thoughts, and learn coping strategies.

CBT allows people to learn different ways of understanding and reacting to the source of their fear and can help teach a person to manage their feelings and thoughts.


Some medications can be useful to aid with the symptoms of extreme fear.

Medication should only be used as a short-term treatment for phobias because the medication can become part of safety behaviors for the individual to rely on when facing fearful situations.

This can prevent the individual from fully exposing themselves to the fear and not achieving desensitization eventually.

Below are some medications that can be used for phobias:

Beta-blockers – these work to reduce the physical symptoms of fear by lowering stress on the heart and blood vessels. These block the release of the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine to prevent the fight or flight response from being triggered.

However, these can come with some side effects: insomnia, fatigue, and upset stomach.

Benzodiazepines – tranquilizers are a type of this medication. This helps reduce anxiety symptoms and has a sedative effect on the individual, meaning they slow down the body and brain function.

These medications can be taken when required but have been known to cause a dependency and can have withdrawal effects that could be life-threatening.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – these medications are a type of antidepressant and are commonly prescribed for phobias.

SSRIs affect serotonin levels in the brain and so can produce better moods in individuals. Side effects of these medications include nausea, sleep problems, and headaches.

Other coping methods

Relaxation techniques can be used to help people calm down. These can include meditation and breath retraining exercises to help treat the symptoms of fear, especially when faced with a fearful situation.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique where an individual purposely tenses a muscle group for a few seconds and then releases it. The idea is that the release of the muscles should decrease any build-up tension.

Working through all the muscle groups this way can encourage the whole body to feel relaxed and reduce the fear response. Likewise, yoga can prove a useful method for reducing the fear response.

Combining physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation in yoga can all help people improve their management of anxiety disorders and fear.

Finally, exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, can positively affect stress and anxiety and may decrease the fear response symptoms.


Killgore, W. D., & Yurgelun-Todd, D. A. (2001). Sex differences in amygdala activation during the perception of facial affect. Neuroreport, 12(11), 2543-2547.

Maren, S., Phan, K. L., & Liberzon, I. (2013). The contextual brain: implications for fear conditioning, extinction and psychopathology. Nature reviews neuroscience14(6), 417-428.

Öhman, A. (2009). Of snakes and faces: An evolutionary perspective on the psychology of fear. Scandinavian journal of psychology, 50(6), 543-552.

Rádlová, S., Polák, J., Janovcová, M., Sedláčková, K., Peléšková, Š., Landová, E., & Frynta, D. (2020). Emotional reaction to fear-and disgust-evoking snakes: sensitivity and propensity in snake-fearful respondents. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 31.

Seligman, M. E. (1971). Phobias and preparedness. Behavior therapy, 2(3), 307-320.

Steimer, T. (2002). The biology of fear-and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 4(3), 231.

van Rooij, S. J., Smith, R. D., Stenson, A. F., Ely, T. D., Yang, X., Tottenham, N., Stevens, J. S. & Jovanovic, T. (2020). Increased activation of the fear neurocircuitry in children exposed to violence. Depression and anxiety, 37(4), 303-312.

Is fear an emotion?

Yes, fear is a basic emotion that is triggered as a response to perceived threats. It is a survival mechanism that prompts action to protect oneself from danger. Fear can cause physiological changes like increased heart rate, and it can also influence thoughts and behaviors.

How do people perceive fear differently?

People perceive fear differently due to personal experiences, genetic predispositions, cultural norms, and mental health conditions. For some, a situation may trigger intense fear, while others may feel excitement or curiosity in the same situation. People’s coping strategies and resilience significantly influence their responses to fear-inducing situations.

What causes fear?

A perceived threat or danger causes fear. This can be a response to something immediate and obvious, such as coming face-to-face with a dangerous animal, or something more abstract, like a fear of losing one’s job. The brain’s amygdala plays a key role in processing fear by sending signals that trigger the fight-or-flight response. Fear can also be learned through personal experiences or by observing others.

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Florence Yeung

BSc (Hons), Psychology, MSc, Clinical Mental Health Sciences

Trainee Clinical Psychologist

Florence Yeung is a certified Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner with three years of clinical experience in NHS primary mental health care. She is presently pursuing a ClinPsyD Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust (HPFT). In her capacity as a trainee clinical psychologist, she engages in specialist placements, collaborating with diverse borough clinical groups and therapeutic orientations.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

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